As melodramatic as sounds now, I felt a little shaken. I’d never walked into a grocery store to find absolutely no meat! I couldn’t have imagined a scenario where I’d have trouble finding ground beef. Yet there I was.
Routine grocery shopping didn’t feel particularly routine in March of 2020, as consumers stocked up en masse to prepare for hunkering down at home. Covid was changing everything, and those empty meat cases drove the point home in a way little else could.
Around the same time, rancher Jacquelyne Leffler’s phone started ringing. Jacquelyne is a friendly, plain-spoken, young businesswoman who agreed to share her story with me and help demystify the process of bulk buying beef.
The first call was from her butcher. People were looking for meat, and he knew Jacquelyn’s company, Leffler Prime Performance, sold meat directly to consumers. Could she help?
She answered that call, as well as the many that came after.
With Covid outbreaks crippling packing operations and disrupting every point along the supply chain, the normal way of doing things had been turned upside down. But if there is one thing in this world I’ve found I can reliably count on, it’s that farm folks are experts at finding a way.
Jacquelyne didn’t have any cattle ready to market, but she did have connections. She partnered with Jason Palenske of Palenske Ranch. Jason’s feedlot typically feeds out Jacquelyne’s cattle as they are prepped for sale, and he raises the same breed of cattle as she does. She knew she could work with him to provide a consistent product for her customers and help Jason move his cattle at a profit simultaneously.
Profits this year haven’t been a given. Despite inflated retail meat prices, live cattle prices have remained low enough that suppliers may be losing hundreds on each head sold, provided they could find a place to sell at all.
Consumers still wanted to buy meat, however, and ranchers still wanted to sell it. People like Jacquelyne stepped up to bridge this gap. Throughout the spring and summer she kicked into high gear, taking the small, side business she’d started about five years ago to a whole new level.
She hopped on Facebook every day with two desktop computers, an iPad and her phone. In addition to monitoring the Shop Kansas Farms group and Facebook Marketplace, she was up late every night running searches on terms like “beef,” “quarter, half and whole,” or “hamburger.”
Her family thought she was a little nuts, Jacquelyne admits, but she was driven. She focused on offering information and guidance to the growing flock of first-time direct-from-the-farm buyers, answering endless questions not only about beef, but farming in general. She sees educating the public as an opportunity to support the agricultural industry as a whole, in addition to growing her own business.
The hustle paid off, both for Jacquelyne and her (well-informed) customers. Usually selling 20 head of cattle a year, she has sold roughly eight times that for 2020. She has a growing list new customers bulk buying beef, with hopes of retaining over half of them long-term.
Buying beef directly requires far more effort and planning than just grabbing a package of steak from the grocery store. Beyond budgeting and storage space requirements, the process itself can be confusing and intimidating for first-timers. So I quizzed Jacquelyne to score some tips for direct-beef-buying newbies.
10 Tips on Bulk Buying Beef for First-Timers
- Allow plenty of lead time. Most people purchase one fourth, one half or a whole animal. The entire enterprise depends on when the cattle are ready to go as well as when the butcher is available to process the order, so sales are often booked well in advance. There’s no way to know precisely how long the endeavor will take until you consult with the folks who make it happen. Start early!
- Don’t buy cows. Instead, choose a steer or heifer. Cows are older, so the meat will be tougher. Steers are raised specifically for food. Heifers may have been expected to breed but if not, they are processed. Younger animals provide better tasting meat.
- Consider breed preferences, if you have them. For example, many people like Black Angus, as the breed is known for its quality. But when cattle go through a packing plant on their way to mass distribution, they may be labeled “Black Angus” if they’re at least 51% black, regardless of actual breed. Buying meat directly from the source will allow you to be sure you’re actually getting the breed you’re paying for, such as Black Angus and not a 51%-black Holstein. Ask questions!
- Grass-fed vs. Grain-fed: There are differences in taste as well as price determined by an animal’s diet. All cattle eat grass, but most are supplemented (or finished) with grain-based feed. Exclusively grass-fed meat tastes a little different, generally isn’t marbled as well grain-fed, and may cost between sixty cents to a dollar more per pound. Personal preferences and budget will help dictate choices here.
- Know the terms. “Live weight” is the weight before processing. “Carcass weight” or “hanging weight” is the weight after processing. A 1400-pound live animal may ultimately produce 555 pounds of edible beef. First time buyers sometimes believe they’ve been shorted, not understanding the whole picture. Expect a carcass weight of roughly 65-70% of a live weight, or 55-60% if all the bones are removed.
- Understand how your choices impact how much meat you take home. Thicker steaks mean fewer steaks. Boneless cuts reduce the total weight of your order. Leaner hamburger has more fat removed, so fewer pounds end up in your freezer. Processing accounts for differences between the carcass weight and the completed order. The rancher or butcher can help you make informed choices.
- Price comparisons are tricky. You’ll have both the cost of the beef and processing charges to consider. Look at the hanging weight price per pound, multiplied by the estimated total weight, as your starting point. Then, add in the processing fees from the butcher. Some have a kill charge. Hamburger made into patties usually costs more than the same amount of hamburger packed into tubes. Each butcher will have their own fees, so don’t forget to tally up these miscellaneous charges. Dividing the anticipated cost by the estimated weight yield will allow you to compare prices more fairly.
- Once you’ve made your choices, expect to pay a deposit with the remaining amount due at pickup. Approaching delivery day, you’ll be asked to complete a “cut sheet” with the butcher, specifying what specific cuts of beef you’d prefer. This allows you to customize the order based on how you eat. But don’t be afraid to try some unfamiliar cuts as well old favorites! That’s part of the fun. Your butcher can make recommendations to help you decide.
- Final cost is based on the weight—and weight estimates are just that: estimates! This is extremely important to understand, as it’s one of the most common points of frustration for first-timers. No one can say exactly what an animal will weigh on the day they are processed. No one can tell you exactly how many pounds from the live weight processing will claim. Ranchers can offer educated guesses, of course. The end price, however, can vary from a quote $100 up or down quite easily, so you’ll need to remain flexible regarding the total.
- Make room! Your meat will arrive frozen and ready for storage in your freezer. You’ll need about one cubic foot of freezer space for every 35-40 pounds of meat. Odd-shaped cuts need more room. If you have other items in the freezer, don’t forget to account for that space as well.
Navigating the Process of Bulk Buying Beef
Throughout it all, don’t hesitate to stay in contact with your rancher. Not only are most happy to answer questions, but many will allow you to tour the farm and see how the cattle are managed, teach kids about their food or even name the animal you’re purchasing. The process of buying beef directly is much more than a commercial transaction—it is an experience.
Although there is a learning curve, there are compelling reasons to consider buying beef directly. You can keep your freezer stocked even when stores aren’t. You’ll likely learn about new cuts and how to best prepare them. Planned consciously, prices can be significantly lower than retail. An abundance of nutritious food on hand means less temptation to eat poorly.
Perhaps best of all, you’ll know your money is staying local, helping your neighbors and community as much as they are helping you by providing quality food. While the number of people buying beef directly has increased, the sort of partnerships being formed now aren’t really new.
“This is what people have been doing forever,” says Jacquelyne. “Essentially, we’re just bartering with our neighbor.”
There’s no reason to wait for empty meat cases at the grocery before getting to know those neighbors. Reach out to your local Farm Bureau or State Beef Council to find ranchers who sell directly to consumers in your area.
Beyond the pleasure of making new friends, some of those neighbors might just be able to help you fill your freezer with nutritious and delicious beef!
Special thanks to Jacquelyne Leffler for making the time in her busy schedule to answer my questions, as well as to Kansas Soybean Commission, Kansas Farm Bureau, and the Kansas Pork Association. for sponsoring this post.